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Acts of an Easter People: Fearless Witness

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
April 7, 2013

The Second Sunday of Easter

Acts 5:27-32

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” (NRSV).

In the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday I said that the Resurrection of Jesus is only part of the good news.  I said, “Yes, God raised Jesus from the dead, but on that day, when the stone was rolled away, a power was unleashed on the world that was not only life-giving, but also life-changing, and for us that may be the best news of all.”  Because while we hope to claim the everlasting life someday, we want to live the abundant life here and now, and there is too much in our lives, too much of the time, that keeps us from doing that. 

Last week I helped to lead a retreat at Graves Mountain Lodge near Shenandoah National Park.  It was called “Practicing Resurrection,” and the mountains in the springtime seemed like the perfect place to practice.  I began with the premise that the resurrection life is life at its fullest, and I asked the group, “What are some of the things that keep us from living that kind of life?” The first answer that came back may have been the best one of all; it came from a Northern Virginia accountant who said, simply: “Fear.” 

Fear. 

Has it ever held you back from doing something you wanted to do?  Has it ever kept you from doing something you should have done?  When I was in seminary I took an evangelism class.  I needed one.  I had grown up Presbyterian; I didn’t know very much about evangelism.  My professor was a big fan of personal evangelism, that is, witnessing to people.  He urged us to practice whenever we had a chance.  And so, one day, I found myself sitting alone at a fast food restaurant and saw someone at another table sitting by himself.  It occurred to me that I should go over and witness to him.  According to my professor, that’s what we Christians were supposed to do.  So, I began to think about how I would introduce myself, and how I would bring up the subject of Jesus, and as I did I found that my heart was beating faster.  Before I could get up the nerve to go over and talk to him he got up and left, and I kicked myself for missing the opportunity.  Why didn’t I do it?  What was I afraid of?  Well, I was afraid that he would think I was some kind of religious fruitcake.  It had happened before.  There was a guy in college who still won’t speak to me because I once invited him to a Bible study.  But since then I’ve been encouraged by that verse where Jesus says, “whoever rejects you rejects me; and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16).  In other words, “Don’t be afraid; it’s not about you.”

But try telling that to Peter.

When they arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane it was Peter, apparently, who swung a sword and cut off someone’s ear.  That was brave, wasn’t it?  Or maybe it was just foolish.  Jesus scolded him and said, “No more of this!” and healed the man’s ear.  And then, according to Luke, they led Jesus away, and Peter followed at a distance.  But when they got to the high priest’s house they kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, and Peter sat down with them.  A servant girl looked at his face in the firelight and said, “This man was also with him.”  But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And Jesus turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And Peter went out and wept bitterly (Luke 22:54-62).

Why did he deny Jesus?  Because he was afraid.  But that was before Jesus rose from the dead, and when he did, as I said, God unleashed a power on the world that was both life-giving and life-changing.  It certainly changed Peter’s life.  The risen Jesus told his disciples to wait until they had received power from on high, and then, he said, “You will be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judea and all of Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Ten days later that power came with a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and afterward Peter preached a sermon that resulted in the conversion of 3,000 people.  At one point in that sermon he said, “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” 

That was brave, wasn’t it? 

But it made its point; it cut those people to the quick.  At the end of the sermon they asked Peter, “What should we do?” and he said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you.”  And that’s what they did.  A few days later, when he and John were going up to the temple to pray, they bumped into a crippled beggar who asked them for money.  Peter looked him in the eye and said, “I don’t have any money but what I do have I give to you.  In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk!”  And immediately the man’s feet and ankles became strong.  He jumped up, and stood, and began to walk, and went into the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.  He made so much commotion that a huge crowd gathered together, recognizing him as the man who used to beg for money at the Beautiful Gate.  But Peter said, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life…” (Acts 3:1-15).

That was brave, wasn’t it?

But Luke tells us that while Peter and John were still speaking “the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead” (the Sadducees didn’t believe in resurrection). So they arrested them and put them in jail, but not before 5,000 people had become believers because of their word.  The next day the rulers, elders, and scribes, along with Annas, and Caiaphas—that is, all the same people who had condemned Jesus to death—asked them, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified…” (Acts 4:1-10).

That was brave, wasn’t it?

Luke says that when they saw the boldness of Peter and John and realized that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized them as companions of Jesus. And when they saw the man who had been cured standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition.  So they ordered them to leave the council while they discussed the matter with one another. They said, “What will we do with them? For it is obvious to all who live in Jerusalem that a notable sign has been done through them; we cannot deny it. But to keep it from spreading further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.  But Peter and John said to them, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:13-20).

That was brave, wasn’t it?

They kept on talking about Jesus.  They couldn’t seem to help themselves.  It made the religious authorities furious.  They arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison, but during the night an angel let them out and told them to go on preaching, so they did.  The next day, when the high priest had called the council together—some seventy people—he sent the temple police to fetch the prisoners, but they couldn’t find them.  They came back and reported, “We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” About that time someone rushed in and said, “The men you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!”  And so the temple police went and brought them in, but gently, because they were afraid of the people (Acts 5:17-26).

Which brings us to our text for today, where the high priest said, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him” (Acts 5:27-32).

That was brave, wasn’t it?

Sometimes I talk with people who tell me they don’t believe in the Resurrection.  They say they’ve never seen anybody come back from the dead.  And I say, “Well, I can’t make you believe it, but you have to admit something happened at Easter,” and then I usually tell them that the strongest evidence I have is what happened to those disciples, and to Peter in particular.  He went from being afraid of a servant girl in that courtyard to being a fearless witness in front of the council—the same council that condemned Jesus to death.  They could have done the same to Peter, but he doesn’t seem to care anymore.  It’s as if the old world order has been turned upside down by the Resurrection and a new world order has emerged.  Peter says it like this to the council: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus and exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior.”  In other words, he turned things upside down.  He made Jesus Lord of All which makes you, well, Lord of Nothing, and especially not lord of me.”

Luke says when they heard this they were enraged and wanted to kill Peter, but a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” They were convinced by him, and when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged (probably forty lashes minus one with a leather strap). Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 5:34-42).

Luke tells us that when Peter denied Jesus he went out “weeping bitterly.”  But when he was flogged by the council he went out rejoicing, and even though he had been ordered not to speak in the name of Jesus, he found that he couldn’t stop talking about him.  This is what I’m telling you: the power that raised Jesus from the dead is the same power that turned Peter into a fearless witness.  It is both life-giving and life-changing.  It is loose in the world, and available to us, and that’s good news.  Because the next time I’m at a fast food restaurant hesitating to share my faith because some stranger might think I’m a religious fruitcake, I’m going to think of Peter and put away my fear.  I’m going to remember that this is just how it is for Easter people:

We can’t stop talking about Jesus.

—Jim Somerville 2013

 
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